The Charlottesville 29

If there were just 29 restaurants in Charlottesville, what would be the ideal 29?

Introducing Champion Grill: A Charlottesville Sports Bar for the 2020s

Champion Grill logo

Some say the key to success is to surround yourself with good people. Maybe, but easier said than done. You need to be a person that good people want to surround.

Hunter Smith must be one. In his ever-growing number of ventures, the founder of Champion Brewing Company has had a knack for partnerning with talented people. From his stellar and loyal team at Champion brewery, to Wilson Richey, to Tucker Yoder, Smith seems to attract people who can help him succeed.

Smith’s latest project is no exception. Open now in Stonefield, Champion Grill brings together another talented team, headed by industry veteran J.R. Hadley, who founded and ran the hugely successful Boylan Heights, before selling it last year. Hadley is now Director of Development of the newly formed Champion Hospitality Group, which has several openings in the works, beginning with Champion Grill.

It was the opportunity to work with Smith, Hadley says, that attracted him to his new role. “Hunter has made a conscious decision to take less for himself, and give more via charity, fundraisers, and employee benefits,” says Hadley. “It’s an incredible company with the kinds of values and business structure that I really appreciate.”

A Sports Bar for the 2020s 

“Killer beers and comfort food for all the best gamedays” is how Hadley sums up the sports-themed Champion Grill, which takes over the large, airy Stonefield corner space once home to RockSalt. But, it seems more than just that. Champion Grill’s apparent aim is to combine the best of sports bars of the past with updates that meet the tastes of the present. It is a community-focused, vegan-friendly sports bar run by a local brewery, with bar food riffs from a former food truck chef.

As a nod to the past, Champion Grill’s walls are covered with nostalgic sports posters and banners saved from the childhoods of Hadley and Smith. Nods to present-day sports, meanwhile, include a mural of UVa Men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett dunking on Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and, perched above the open kitchen, an electronic scoreboard, currently set to 39-30, the score of UVa football’s recent victory over Virginia Tech.

mural

score

As in any good sports bar, televisions abound. High-top communal tables and booths provide unobstructed views of the grill’s many screens, always set to sports. And, there’s even a massive projection screen, which Champion Grill uses for particularly big games. Pinball machines, shuffleboard, and vintage arcade games harken back to the youths of many guests.

And yet, instead of the over-sized glasses of mass-produced commercial beers common to many classic sports bars, Champion Grill serves nothing but local beers brewed at its facility right here in Charlottesville. There’s also a full bar, with liquor, local cider and wine from local wineries owned by Smith’s parents.

Sports Bar Food, Improved

I may be burying the lede here because Smith’s best move may have been landing chef Phillip Gerringer. A veteran of kitchens like Mono Loco and The Rooftop, Gerringer is best known for his much-missed food truck South Fork, which grew a loyal following among the late night drinking crowd. His comforting food seems made for a bar.

Gerringer’s menu combines old favorites from South Fork with his own twists on bar food. Menu sections include Fried Appetizers like pickles and pork rinds, Wings, Salads, and Sandwiches & Entrees.

Sometimes when a new restaurant opens, a dish takes off and becomes an immediate crowd favorite. At Champion Grill, the buzz has been for Fried Brussels Sprouts, and it is warranted. The interplay between the bitterness of the Brussels sprouts and the sweetness of the accompanying pepper jelly would complement almost any style of beer.

brussels

Gerringer himself is fond of the wings, which he brines overnight, slow-bakes in olive oil, and finishes in the fryer. The result? “A really juicy inside and crispy outside,” Gerringer says. Among the house-made sauces, Gerringer is partial to the fiery pineapple jerk.

Another of his favorites is the Fried Chicken sandwich with Nashville Hot. Gerringer pickle-brines chicken overnight before frying it in a batter of buttermilk and hot sauce, and then tossing it in house-made Nashville Hot sauce. He serves it on house bread with butter pickles.

An unusual focus for a sports bar is vegan food, which, believe it or not, is Hadley’s influence.

Say what? The man who made a living selling patties of ground cow is a vegan? Yes, Hadley converted in January 2018, and has been an advocate ever since. “I came to grips with the fact I could no longer be an animal lover, and support their exploitation and torture,” says Hadley. His Boylan Heights became the first restaurant in Virginia to serve the meatless Impossible Burger, which less than two years later is so mainstream that it is served at fast-food restaurants like Burger King.

“Over the years at Boylan Heights,” Hadley says, “I had countless staff members take on the vegan challenge.” He is continuing that advocacy at Champion Grill, which offers vegan alternatives for most menu items. The “wings,” for example, can be ordered with fried cauliflower, instead of chicken. They are Hadley’s favorite item on the menu. And, all of the house-made sauces are 100% vegan, too. “Our Champion Hospitality Group is focused on being the standard for vegan options and continuing the same kind of regional influence that I started at Boylan Heights,” says Hadley.

A Sports Bar with a Signature Dessert?

How many sports bars have a signature dessert? Here’s betting that Champion Grill will.

It actually originated several years ago at an annual neighborhood party we would hire South Fork each year to cater. One of South Fork’s most popular items was sweet potato fritters, typically offered as a side with sandwiches and other savory items. Some loyalists would follow the truck around town just for the fritters.

One year for the party, I asked if Gerringer could offer the sweet potato fritters as a dessert, topped with gelato. Gerringer obliged. Our party guests loved it. And, they were not alone. The dessert has been so well received, Gerringer says, that he has now put it on the menu at Champion Grill. Topped with vanilla ice cream and honey, it is the rare dessert that alone warrants a visit to a sports bar, even when no games are on.

fritters

Champion Grill hours are: Monday – Thursday: 3 pm – Midnight; Friday – Sunday: 11 am – Midnight.

Five Finds on Friday: Mita Tembe

mita

Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Mita Tembe, Bakery Manager of MarieBette Cafe and Bakery. At MarieBette, Tembe’s favorites are the sticky bun, the chocolate chunk cookie, and the Monroe tartine, with scrambled eggs, caramelized onions, bacon, and herbs atop MarieBette sourdough. Tembe’s other favorites around town:

1) Spanish Olive Oil and Rosemary Cake at Orzo. “My friend and I meant to share but we got two instead. Best accident ever.”

2) Santa Fe Enchiladas and a House Margarita .at Continental Divide. “I love the pumpkin muffin on the side, and you can never go wrong with a CD margarita.”

3) Belgian fries and aioli at Public Fish & Oyster. “Hands down the best fries in Charlottesville: hot, salty, crispy. Also, the fried brussels sprouts, with that same aioli, are incredible.”

4) Torta Brava at La Michoacana. “Super super spicy and absolutely delicious.”

5) Grilled Banana Bread at Bizou. “I have attempted to recreate this at home to no avail. Bizou does it best.”

banana

 

 

 

2019 Dish of the Year: JM Stock Cville Ham Biscuit

If food writing could shed one word from its lexicon, there would be few better candidates than “perfect”, and its derivative “perfectly.”

For one thing, the term is so vague that it rarely means more than “very enyoyable.” To describe a dish as “perfect” or “cooked perfectly” inevitably leaves readers wondering how the writer prefers the dish. If a writer says French fries were “cooked perfectly,” does she like them crispy or soft? Heavy or light salt? Thick or thin? Ridged or smooth? Skin or bare? Twice cooked or thrice? In a more extreme example, “the liver was perfect” may mean one thing when written by a food blogger, and another thing altogether if the author is Hannibal Lecter.

With sleight of hand, “perfect” seeks to sneak the square peg of objectivity into the round hole of subjectivity. Yet, there is no Platonic Ideal of a dish towards which chefs are striving, or could ever reach. Rather, a chef’s task is simply to apply heat and other techniques to enhance the flavor of things we eat. We are all wired differently, and so enjoyment of a finished product can vary from one person to the next.

That said, if there is any food which a writer could be forgiven for describing as perfect, it is the Cville Ham Biscuit at JM Stock Provisions. The story of the Charlottesville butcher shop’s iconic biscuit tells how, over time, a team of passionate and patient food artisans  developed the rare dish where further improvement seems inconceivable.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

“Needs” may overstate the reasons JM Stock first created its ham biscuit. But, several objectives did converge to give it life.

A primary purpose was to sell coffee. Shortly before JM Stock sold its first biscuit, it had just introduced to Charlottesville Lamplighter Coffee — a young Richmond-based roaster whose philosophy aligned so closely with JM Stock that the butcher wanted to see them succeed. “They were sourcing beans the right way – direct, fair trade, and they were doing really nice roasting,” says JM Stock co-founder Matt Greene. While JM Stock wanted to support Lamplighter in Charlottesville, early sales lagged. A food option in the morning, they thought, might drive coffee sales. One idea was pie. That didn’t work. Another was biscuits.

A second objective was to sell ham. JM Stock buys entire hogs at a time and breaks them down in-house. While popular cuts like pork chops sell quickly, butchers must find other uses for less popular parts. Coming in at 30lbs a piece, legs are a particularly tough sell. JM Stock’s main way to do this is to make ham, but they had found that even ham sales could not keep pace with sales of other parts of the pig. “We had all these hams,” says Greene, “and we didn’t know what to do with them.”

These objectives notwithstanding, most of all Matt Greene was hungry for biscuits.

A Christmas Story

The JM Stock ham biscuit story begins on December 24, 2014.

‘Twas the morning before Christmas and Greene’s stomach was stirring. “I had a hankering for some biscuits,” says Greene. Besides, it was Christmas Eve, and JM Stock wanted to do something nice for its customers. So, they made biscuits.

For the ones made that day, there was no ham. Instead, with a surplus of butternut squash in the shop, they made butternut squash jam to spread on the biscuits. That was it.

The initial biscuit recipe came from Ean Bancroft, a chef who worked at JM Stock at the time, and has since relocated to Atlanta. From there, the recipe evolved over several months of tweaking and honing by Bancroft and others in the shop. Cut the baking powder in half. Cut the baking soda altogether. Buttermilk vs. whole milk. One buttermilk source vs. another.

“We just kept dialing it in until we got a product that we felt was bulletproof,” says Greene. “As little room for human error as possible.”

Though Greene and co-founder James Lum III sold JM Stock last year to Calder Kegley, the shop continues to make fresh biscuits every morning, and the bullet-proof process has not changed. The task of biscuit making falls each day to whoever happens to be opening the shop. To save time, they combine dry ingredients the night before, so that all that remains to be done the next day is add buttermilk, mix it, roll it, cut out the biscuits, pop them in the oven, and glaze them with butter right before they are done.

The Ham

You can’t have a great ham biscuit without great ham. JM Stock uses its own tasso ham, which was created by meat wizard Alex Import, who has been with the shop since day one. Import has helped JM Stock win several national awards for his charcuterie, including a Best Charcuterie award for the tasso ham itself from the Good Food Awards.

Import’s two-week process for the tasso ham begins with the best product he can find, like Autumn Olive Farms pigs. He removes a whole ham from the bone and breaks it into three muscle groups: top round, sirloin tip, and bottom round. Next, he immerses the cuts in his own brine of water, salt, sugar, chile de arbol, Aleppo pepper, and garlic, pumping the liquid into the meat as well, so the outside does not brine more quickly than the inside.

Following a ten day brine comes a two day dry-cure in a Tasso rub, again Import’s recipe: paprika, chiles, bay leaf, coriander, dried oregano, and dried marjoram, which helps give the final product a flavorful crust. Finally, the ham is smoked for eight hours.

Chill, and slice the ham to order. Pile it high on a biscuit, and add a touch of honey and Texas Pete hot sauce. Voila. The JM Stock CVille Ham Biscuit.

The Cville Ham Biscuit

Last year a panel of food historians, chefs, and others embarked on a search for Charlottesville’s signature dish. After much research and discussion, the panel found it: the Cville Ham Biscuit.

One reason cited was the ham biscuit’s prevalence:  

In Charlottesville, ham biscuits are wherever you turn: from the humblest dives to the most sophisticated restaurants, and everywhere in between. We find them in country stores, gas stations, butchers, farms, church suppers, picnics, cookouts, weddings, funerals, coat pockets, and car seats. We eat them to celebrate, we eat them to mourn, and we eat them for no particular reason at all.

Another reason is that Charlottesville makes such good ones. JM Stock’s biscuits have a particular following. While the biscuits were initially meant to increase the flow of ham through the shop, JM Stock now must order supplemental hams just to meet biscuit demand. The shop sells roughly 50 biscuits per weekday, and even more on weekends. Of the 2.5-3 whole hogs the shop receives each week, plus 2-3 supplemental hams, two thirds of all ham meat leaves the shop on a biscuit.

The 2019 Dish of the Year

Fat. Salt. Sugar. Spice. The composition is common. What is less common is the amount of time and thought the JM Stock team devoted to the details of each component. The result is a Cville Ham Biscuit that stands out even among our area’s stellar bounty.

A common reaction to trying JM Stock’s ham biscuit for the first time is to immediately declare it the best verson ever. During the panel’s survey of area chefs for their thoughts on Charlottesville’s signature dish, one top chef wrote: “After eating JM Stock’s ham biscuit the other day, I might say that it’s the signature dish of the universe.”

Indeed, even if you could travel throughout the universe, you could not find a ham biscuit better than the 2019 Dish of the Year: JM Stock’s Cville Ham Biscuit. Some might call it perfect.

The JM Stock Cville Ham Biscuit, as captured by the one-and-only Tom McGovern

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